Monthly Archives: July 2014

America’s Best Castle – Hearst Castle

20131226-IMG_5139

The U.S. may be a bit lacking in castles compared to other parts of the world, but Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California makes up a bit for the lack in quantity with its playful extravagance with dashes of California nature and Hollywood flavor.

20131226-IMG_6644

The vacation playground for William Randolph Hurst, the newspaper magnate, hosted many celebrities in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. Guests entertained themselves during the day with the multiple pools, gardens, and the largest privately owned zoo at the time.

20131226-IMG_6754

20131226-IMG_5198

I’m not exactly sure how one chooses between the outdoor Neptune Pool surrounded by white marble statues and colonnades, or the indoor Roman Pool with floor to ceiling (and walls too) mosaic tiles in cobalt blue and sparkling gold – sparkling because it is real gold!

20131226-IMG_6684

20131226-IMG_5161

In the evenings, Hearst threw lavish dinner parties, and sometimes legendary costume parties where everyone dressed in costumes borrowed from movie wardrobes. This man really knew how to really enjoy his money!

Some practical advice for your visit – I’d recommend starting with the Grand Rooms Tour, which takes you through the social (“party”) rooms of the largest house on the property. Try to be at the back of the tour group so you can catch a photo of the spaces without too many people in them, once people move along to the next room.

20131226-IMG_5068 20131226-IMG_5085

After the tour, take some time to walk around the entire property and appreciate the gardens, statues, and palm tree-framed views of the Central Coast below.

20131226-IMG_5093

Perhaps pick out a guest house you would have chosen to stay in had you been lucky enough to be invited.

20131226-IMG_5097 20131226-IMG_5108

I’d highly recommend the Upstairs Suites Tour, in addition to the Ground Rooms Tour, if you have time for it. In the past, if you took two tours, you had to take the bus back down the mountain and wait at the Visitor Center in between them, but now they let you wander freely around the grounds for as long as you’d like. Why not lounge around by the Neptune pool in the shade of the colonnade? I sure did!

20131226-IMG_5127

The Upstairs Rooms Tour takes you into Hearst’s bedrooms and his penthouse library, which was my favorite room of the entire castle. I really wanted to grab a rare book from the collection and plop down on a chair and read for hours, but instead they kicked us all out (nicely, of course).

20131226-IMG_6793 20131226-IMG_6820

And then, you take the bus back down to reality and dream of a life with Roman pools, zoo animals and costume parties…

20131226-IMG_5109

Ghost Hunting in Bodie, CA

20100829-IMG_3214

If you can survive the long drive to the middle of nowhere, the nearly 9,000 foot elevation and the last 3 miles of the bumpiest, windy dirt road I’ve ever experienced (in a car with intact shocks anyway), you could be in for a treat of one of the best preserved ghost towns in the U.S. Bodie is located about an hour away from Yosemite and is definitely worth the detour.

20100829-IMG_3095

What once boomed as a gold rush town with an estimated 10,000 people in 1880, the long-abandoned Bodie now sits in a state of “arrested decay,” maintained by the California State Parks System.

20100829-IMG_3102 copy

20100829-IMG_3040

The park is more popular than you might imagine, given its remote location. With the park entry fee, you have the freedom to wander around the grounds of the park, and despite the many people visiting, you will find yourself in pockets of quiet where you feel like you have the entire place to yourself.

20100829-IMG_3063 copy

The interiors of some of the buildings have also been preserved, and I could have spent hours peeking through windows at all of the furnishings, clothing, and household goods, imagining daily life in Bodie’s heyday.

20100829-IMG_3103

20100829-IMG_3004 copy

Bodie was known for its tumultuous, unpredictable weather creating harsh living conditions that many people living there escaped by spending their free time in one of 65 saloons in the town. Even during my two hour long visit, I experienced about three different seasons. At first overcast with ominous clouds, a layer of clouds then broke to offer the brightest blue skies and puffy white clouds, only to disappear again behind clouds even more ominous.

20100829-IMG_3171 copy

20100829-IMG_3144

20100829-IMG_2929 copy

Though I didn’t meet any ghosts on this trip, I am still on the hunt. Have you visited any ghosts towns? I have a few more on my list to visit someday!

The Getty Center, Los Angeles

20140710-20140710-IMG_0373

The Getty Center was high on my list of things to visit while in Los Angeles, but not because of the art. There are a few Van Goghs and Monets worth a glance, but the real draw is the Richard Meier-designed space. An efficient tram takes you up a steep hill, and you exit to a space of serenity, dotted with quirky sculptures and native plants.

20140710-20140710-IMG_0354

20140711-20140711-IMG_0440

Wait for everyone from your tram walk up the stairs, leaving you with a brief moment of quiet. You have about 5 minutes to take people-free photos before the next tram arrives.

20140710-20140710-IMG_0365

The views of Los Angeles all the way to downtown are lovely, and the cactus garden is a nice distraction from the ever-present layer of smog.

20140711-20140711-IMG_0407

20140711-IMG_3385

I was surprised to see a sculpture of a man on a horse that I had seen for the first time just a few months ago in Venice, Italy at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Peggy’s version of the Angel of the Citadel has a screw-in “member” that she could remove when more conservative guests would visit. The horse’s silly smile really makes me laugh.

20140710-20140710-IMG_0398

The garden area provides a playful burst of color amidst the monochromatic architecture.

20140711-20140711-IMG_0433

20140711-20140711-IMG_0431

All of that walking and stair climbing and picture taking might make you want to take a break in one of the inviting seating areas. Maybe find one that has a view of Los Angeles and cool off with an iced tea, like I did!

20140710-20140710-IMG_0378

20140711-IMG_3375

Have you visited the Getty Center? I would like to see it during golden hour as the sun begins to set. The stone buildings must glow as if lit from within!

Luxury on a Dude Ranch: Exploring Contrasts at The Alisal

20140512-IMG_1937

On my first trip to The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort (oh yes, there will be many more), I experienced the type of vacation I didn’t think existed anymore. Think the Dirty Dancing Kellerman Resort meets Santa Barbara, with a dash of horses. It has an old school feel with all of the modern comforts.

Tucked behind the town of Solvang about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara, Alisal’s grounds are fully embedded in the local nature. In springtime, the fields burst with yellow mustard flowers up to your ears, literally. Cantering through them off-trail on a is a memory that will not fade for a long time. The Santa Ynez mountains are known for wineries, and the hills remind me a little bit of parts of Italy.

20140512-IMG_1911

The ranch casually, yet luxuriously meets every vacation need with spa, fitness center, two golf course and large pool, but I was there for the horses (though the pool was very useful in cooling off between the morning and afternoon trail rides!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The attentive wranglers handle every riding need, pairing you up with a horse to match your skill level and personality. Having very little riding experience outside of an arena, I was tentative at first, especially about cantering on trails, and the wranglers not only picked great horses for my rides, but also checked on me often during the rides to make sure I felt comfortable. This personal attention helped me to feel confident on the trails and enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes from being immersed in nature on horseback.

20140513-IMG_0030

The wranglers make the horse-rider pairings the day before your ride so they can have your horse saddled up for you when it’s time to ride. You walk up to the board to confirm which horse you are riding, then the wranglers retrieve your horse from where it is tied up, help you mount, and organize you into groups of about 4 to 7. You will always get to ride with your friends if you are going on the same level of ride. I have no idea how they keep this all straight with so many people at so many different levels, but they accomplish it effortlessly.

20140513-IMG_1980

20140514-IMG_0062

After a warm-up trail ride at intermediate level, which involves only walking and trotting, I was ready for an advanced ride, where you canter in spots, allowing your group to go a bit further and see a bit more in the 1.5 hour ride. My first advanced ride took us to the top of this hill overlooking Solvang and Buellton below. Perfect spot for a water break and picture taking!

20140513-IMG_0053

Some of my favorite trails go around the lake, which also offers fishing and boating activities. We encountered so much wildlife on our lake rides – there is a bald eagle nest high up in one of the trees, and we saw not only the adult eagles, but also to babies still in the nest unable to fly! We saw baby deer that still had their spots, and of course the beautiful black and white Alisal cows.

20140515-IMG_2016

20140515-IMG_0180

20140515-IMG_0176

The best ride of all was the breakfast ride. This happens only a couple per week and it is a must. You can ride a horse out to the historic Adobe Camp, or opt for the hay wagon. Beginners take off first since it takes longer for them to get there at a walking pace, then the trotting intermediate group, then our cantering advanced group, and finally the hay wagon, and we all arrive at the Adobe at around the same time for a cowboy breakfast (if cowboys had chefs making custom omelettes and logo embossed pancakes). Over the best pancakes in history, fresh fruit and coffee, we sat at picnic tables making new friends, while being serenaded with music and cowboy poetry. It was on the breakfast ride that I got to ride the much-loved, often-requested, rarely-available Paint horse named Parker, and like every other person who has the pleasure of riding him, I wanted to bring him home as a souvenir.

20140514-IMG_0074

20140514-IMG_0070

20140514-IMG_0068

Did I forget to mention the petting farm? Miniature horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, and friendly roosters. I could hug and squeeze them all day!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

20140514-IMG_0108

20140514-IMG_0118

20140514-IMG_0154

There are so many things that make this place special, but the most memorable for me are: the effortless luxury that makes you feel cared for in a relaxed way; the gourmet food made from local ingredients (breakfast and dinner are included in the rate); and the best bunch of trail horses you will ever encounter, probably anywhere. People travel from all over the U.S. to enjoy the unique Alisal experience, so I feel very lucky that it is just a 5 hour drive from my house, and I plan to make it an annual adventure! Until next time…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Once (at least) in a Lifetime: Carnival in Venice, Italy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For some reason, the magical little city of Venice, Italy has been in my daydreams lately. And then, I came across this article from the Huffington Post about the Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime, and guess which city came in #1? Venice, of course! I have not seen anywhere near all 50 on the list, but of the many I have visited, Venice makes the top of my list, as well. I would add that visiting Venice during the annual Carnival festival makes the experience even more special.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Something about seeing people in elaborate, colorful costumes with expressionless masks against the backdrop of Venetian architecture and canals is just a vision unmatched by anything else.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The vibe when walking the streets of Venice at any time of year is mystical and romantic, and then Carnival adds on an extra layer of fun and revelry. You don’t know what surprise awaits you when you turn the corner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back alleys are suddenly transformed into scenes from a movie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Venice during Carnival feels like a party all day, all night. People in costumes pose and preen near all of the well-known sights during the day, while at night they walk in droves toward one of the many galas around town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s not too early to start thinking about planning your trip to Venice during Carnival next year!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Have you been to Carnival in Venice? Or experienced any Carnival festivals around the world? Rio is on my wish list, and I hear Tobago does it up big, too!

3 Things to Do in Oceanside, California

If you live in Southern California, you have probably sat in traffic driving through the Oceanside / Camp Pendleton area many times, but chances are, you may have not explored what it has to offer once you exit the highway. Here are 3 things that are worth exiting the highway for.

 

1. Walk down Oceanside Pier and meet the famous brown pelican named Charlie

Oceanside’s Pier is by far its most well known attraction, and as far as piers go, it has a lot to see. First, you have to meet “Charlie the Brown Pelican” and his friends. You can feed them anchovies or just observe them against the backdrop of Oceanside beach, like I did.

20140628-20140628-IMG_0123

20140628-20140628-IMG_0102The waves are perfect for surfing on both sides of the pier – the south side for beginners and the north side for more experienced surfers. I can’t think of many other places where people surf so close to the pier so you get a unique vantage point when watching them catch waves directly below you.

20140628-20140628-IMG_0056

The beach will be packed on a summer weekend, but parking is easy and free just a block from the beach, or you can park right at the beach for a small fee. I was pleasantly surprised by the easy access to the beach and pier.

20140628-IMG_0037

20140628-20140628-IMG_0015

 

2. Visit the Mission and the Oldest Pepper Tree in California

I’d love to see all of the twenty-one Spanish missions in California. They are spread evenly from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, about 30 miles apart, or a day’s journey by horseback. Tradition says the priests sprinkled the routes between missions with mustard seed so the paths were blooming in bright yellow. Follow the yellow bloom road!

The mixture of Spanish and Moorish style architecture at Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia makes me feel transported to Spain or Morocco.

20140704-IMG_0235

 

20140704-IMG_0212

Say hi to the oldest pepper tree in California in the garden area – it’s nicely framed by a brick archway so you can’t miss it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

3. Explore the Harbor

There’s something about a lighthouse that makes a scene so much more picturesque. The Oceanside Harbor has a beautiful lighthouse amidst the busy marina. With many shops and restaurants, and the best latte I’ve had since Italy (at the Nautical Bean), I will be back here again and again. Like at the pier area, parking was easy and free, which adds to the overall pleasant experience of visiting Oceanside!

20140704-IMG_0288

20140704-IMG_0304

20140704-IMG_0263

Stay in a Historic Home in Kyoto

20130406-_DSC2408

While visiting Kyoto, the former capital of Japan steeped in rich history, why not enhance your experience by staying in a historic house that is nearly 100 years old? Bairin-an (“Plum Grove”) is one of three units within a large machiya (wooden traditional townhouse) called Kyo Machiya Miyabi that was renovated to include modern facilities for added comfort, and is available for short-term rental.

20130406-_DSC2414

The design was completed by a renowned Kyoto-based architect, Geoffrey P. Moussas, who specializes in historic preservation of machiya. I really appreciated all of the original wood in the home, scarred by decades of every day use. Typical of a machiya, Bairin-An has an interior private garden and interesting interior features such as sliding windows made of paper between living spaces.

20130407-_DSC2449

Bairin-An is located in the famous Gion district of Kyoto where you can still see geisha walking in full kimono gear and white make-up, if you are lucky! Its location makes it an ideal home base for travelers, a short walk to Kyoto’s bustling business district, but on a quiet residential street that makes you feel like a local resident. It is within walking distance of many famous temples, including Kiyomizu Temple, a designated World Cultural Heritage site and a first stop for many visiting Kyoto.

20130406-_DSC2413
I especially enjoyed burrowing in the comfortable futon bed after a long day of sightseeing (if you’ve ever slept on a good futon, you know there’s no sleep quite like it!), then waking up and having a cup of green tea while looking out over the private garden.

Do you seek out places with character and history over a modern hotel?

A wedding and a funeral in Japan

20140420-IMG_1363

Rites and rituals are fascinating parts of a culture, and I got to experience an abundance of them in Tokyo all in one day. The overcast Sunday began with my grandmother’s funeral. There are numerous ceremonies for the deceased in Buddhism, starting with a wake and cremation ceremony, followed by multiple memorial ceremonies, but this was one of the most significant ceremonies which takes place 49 days after the death (in Buddhism, 49 days is the estimated time it takes a spirit to be reborn). During the ceremony, a Buddhist priest chants from a sutra, then members of the family stand one at a time at the altar to offer incense to the deceased.

Following the ceremony, our grandmother’s urn was placed in the family grave located on the temple grounds. After a catered lunch of traditional Japanese food at the dining area of the temple, guests were given a parting gift (in the photo above, you can see us carrying gifts into the temple that will be given to guests) as a thank you for condolence money given to the family. Indeed it is a gift-giving culture, and gifts are as much a part of daily life as part of major rituals.

20140420-IMG_1233

Later that day, I got to witness the wedding of my sister’s friend in the famous Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of Harajuku, Tokyo. The bride wore a traditional white wedding kimono called a “shiromuku” and I think she looked so beautiful!

20140420-IMG_1272

Traditional wedding ceremonies take place inside the shrine and are only for close family members, but friends and the general public can observe the procession from different parts of the shrine, complete with the ubiquitous red paper umbrella. If you visit Meiji Jingu during the weekend, you will likely see several wedding processions.

20140420-IMG_1279

Many couples these days opt for a Western style wedding in a church or wedding hall, rather than the traditional ceremony, because the Western ceremony is more romantic and informal, and leaves room for personalization. No matter what style of wedding, guests are expected to give cash in a special decorative envelope (usually around $300 or more), and as a thank you for the gift money, the marrying couple gives guests a catalog that they can choose their gift from – things like ceramics, travel accessories, and food items. How smart to allow the guests to select their own gift! I may have to adopt this idea in some way.

20140420-IMG_1229

Whether you are able to witness a traditional wedding at Meiji Jingu or not, the shrine and the long tree-lined walkway to the shrine are impressive, not to mention a welcome diversion from the bustle and sensory overload of Harajuku just outside the shrine grounds.

20140420-IMG_1221

Insider tip:

Keep an eye on the guards in the shrine as they begin to direct foot traffic away from aisles just before a wedding procession comes through, and be one of the first to pick a vantage point right along the path before the crowds form to get the best view!

 

Have you experienced a wedding or funeral in another culture that was very different from your own?